I became suspicious when the pickles weren’t mentioned.
Suspicion and a familiar sadness washed over me while reading a “paper” published in a “journal” devoted to publishing high school student “research” — in this moment, I knew I was headed down yet another rabbit hole of journal-based transgressive behavior.
The subject of the research? The delights of Chik-fil-A sandwiches, and how they’ve been marketed. But when the author failed to mention the famous pickles on the Chik-fil-A sandwiches, it became clear that the research and subsequent peer-review were from sufficient — the report lacked key details and plausible observations.
I’d been led to an unexpected and crazy little corner of the journals world by Daniel Golden, a journalist at ProPublica who I first encountered writing about academic naïveté. At the time, Golden was covering how Russian spies were insinuating themselves into American universities.
His latest article, “The Newest College Admissions Ploy: Paying to Make Your Teen a ‘Peer-Reviewed’ Author,” appears today on ProPublica. (I’m quoted a couple of times.) What Golden has uncovered is a competitive college admissions process with less reliance on SAT and ACT scores, grades rendered toothless via grade inflation, volunteerism that no longer differentiates, and a tired system of letters of recommendation, in which well-heeled students have been looking for new ways to stand out to ensure admission to their school of choice.
The solution? Hiring a college admissions advisory firm that will help them get a published research paper listed on their applications:
As these differentiators recede and the number of applications soars, colleges are grappling with the latest pay-to-play maneuver that gives the rich an edge: published research papers. A new industry is extracting fees from well-heeled families to enable their teenage children to conduct and publish research that colleges may regard as a credential.
Golden uncovered an extensive and relatively recent phenomenon, emerging over just the past few years in most cases. Titles of these journals — most of which are owned directly or indirectly by college admissions firms — include:
- The Journal of Student Research (with affiliated preprint server)
- International Journal of High School Research
- Journal of Emerging Investigators
- Research Archive of Rising Scholars
- Journal of High School Science
Created by placement services as additional ways to raise their prices and market their services — as a differentiator for these companies — the journals aren’t truly journals by any standard we customarily consider valid, but they adopt journal trade dress and claims. And there does seem to be value of the most cynical kind for the students and parents who avail themselves of these services, at least currently — many universities use the resulting publications listed on applications as differentiators, even if some of Golden’s reporting suggests the universities are having the wool pulled over their eyes. In the cynical and fast-moving world of college admissions, this may in some cases be a consensual hallucination.
There are a number of problems with these reports and the journals they’re published in: